As the soft red-tinged light from my headlamp panned across the edge of Eunice Peck's buckbrush swamp and came to an abrupt stop, it was as if my Grandpa's words were being whispered in my right ear.
"Oh, you'll know a fox when you see it, son," he said. "Eyes will glow like the last bright coals in the big fireplace there. Orange and hot. No mistaking those eyes."
He was right. There they were, two burning orbs out of place against the black-and-gray backdrop of what, during the daylight, was ordinarily a quiet swamp. Slowly, I began to make out the shadowy form of a gray fox. Sitting doglike, head cocked as if to hear better the high-pitched injured cottontail squalls coming from the homemade cigar box speaker strung from a low-hanging tree 15 yards away. As I watched, the gray stood and began cautiously moving along the edge, wary and wise — as I'd been told foxes are — but curious, too. And hungry.
The roar of my Old Man's Model 1100 shattered the chill of the night. In the fringe of my headlamp, I saw the gray crumple as the 1 1/2 ounces of No. 2 shot did their work. Even in the pale light provided by the cloud-shrouded crescent moon, I could see my father's smile.
"Good work, son," he whispered, as he shouldered the Remington and started toward his prize.
I was 15 then, and that nocturnal sojourn was my introduction to fox calling. Since that time, I've hunted foxes in many places. The secretive grays remain my personal favorite; red foxes are a wonderfully vibrant open-field change from their gray, brush-loving relatives. Quite a bit has changed in the almost four decades since my inaugural fox hunt, but much has stayed the same. Still, what do you need to know in order to put one of these prized pelts — red fox, or gray — on the stretching board?
LOCATION, LOCATION, AND LOCATION
Where I grew up, we enjoyed good populations of both red and gray fox. For the most part similar in regard to their diet, habit and abilities relating to human avoidance procedures, reds and grays differed radically in two primary arenas. One was appearance, the red being larger and overall red with white highlights, and the gray smaller and an attractive mix of salt-and-pepper with rusty red and the namesake gray hues. The second, and the most important to the caller, was the preferred habitat.
"The perfect red fox country is a mix of open fields with ditch lines and fencerows combined with small woodlots," said Steve Reinhold, brand manager for Mossy Oak's predator line. "I've called a lot of reds in country like this."
And it's been my experience that Reinhold is spot-on in his observation. Reds seem to prefer the wide-open spaces, areas with excellent long-distance visibility, yet with thin grass cover where prey such as mice, voles and ground-nesting birds are abundant.
Conversely, if I'm targeting grays, I'm looking for heavy brush cover, with a frozen cattail swamp bordered by a dense oak woods as my ideal scenario. With grays, I'm not hesitant to do my calling in the heart of the timber itself. However, the edges, especially where the timber edges border brushy cover, are my first choice.
As for the best time of day or night to call, I've always been partial to the period from dusk until dawn. Though predator activity is largely dependent on weather conditions and the state of the animals' stomachs, I've found foxes — like coyotes, raccoons and black bears — are most active from twilight through the hours of darkness. The first two hours following sunset are what I call "The Magic Moments."
Currently the product development manager for MAD Calls, Tad Brown is a longtime fox hunter, and he agrees. "Over the years," he said, "I've had much better success (on foxes) at night. It's the fox's time, especially reds. I believe reds are spookier, and they feel more comfortable under the cover of darkness. Grays seem to respond well at daybreak, and then again in the evening."
SOUNDING IT OUT
As mentioned earlier, a lot has changed in the 40 years since my dad and I spent the night at the edge of Miss Peck's buckbrush swamp, and nothing so much as in the field of technology. Today's fox hunters enjoy better light sources for night-hunting, more efficient ammunition for both shotguns and centerfire rifles, moving decoys, lightweight camouflage and an overwhelming selection of scent elimination products.
But perhaps the biggest advancements have been in the arena of calls and calling. From a modified cassette player, 8 ohm speaker housed in a cigar box, 50 feet of speaker wire and a Burnham Brothers Cottontail in Distress tape, I progressed to a Lohman CD player with not one, but two independent speakers and a battery-powered remote before settling on my current rig — a trio of mouth calls from Ed Sceery (sceeryoutdoors.com), including a coarse cottontail, cottontail distress, and for close-in or subtle work, a rodent coaxer, a.k.a. a squeaker.
I prefer a mouth call, as I feel I can impart more inflection or emotion into my calling sequence with a self-operated call than I can with a pre-loaded piece of audio technology. With the closed reed calls, I can instantly control volume, intensity, cadence, rhythm and inflection — and all with little to no movement. True, my hands are occupied, however that's a challenge that hunters traditionally have had to overcome, but it can be done.
But mouth calls are a matter of personal preference. The 21st Century fox hunter has at his disposal a vast array of high definition digital devices designed specifically for the predator aficionado. "I've enjoyed good success with both types of calls," said Reinhold, "and I carry both into my setups. I do prefer the (electronic) caller, though. It's programmed with all the sounds I like to use and these calls can be changed, along with variables like volume, all at the touch of a finger."
These changes, too, can be made from a distance via push-button remote, a modern touch that takes an animal's attention from the human caller and puts it some 40 yards away. Convenient? Absolutely. A bit too high-tech for my tastes? Yes sir. Still, a mouth call or a battery pack remains a matter of choice.
What sounds specifically? For reds, my all-time favorite, hands down, is a high-pitched young cottontail followed by a similarly high-pitched bird — a woodpecker squall or a bird in distress. The former is a snap to blow on a mouth call, the latter, a bit more challenging but achievable with practice. Birds? Don't rabbits make up the bulk of any fox's diet?
"You think of a fox," said Brown, "and you think of him eating a rabbit. In reality, he eats more small rodents — rats and mice and voles — than he does rabbits, but he also eats a lot of birds. Ground-nesting birds. Foxes are deadly on birds, especially at night.
"And if you're hunting an area where other hunters are running around blowing a rabbit-in-distress call," he continued, "try a bird distress sound. It's going to blow your mind."
For grays, my go-to sound is the bird-in-distress. Not only will grays catch and eat ground-nesting birds, but they also are excellent climbers, an ability that allows them to take tree-nesting species as well. That puts our feathered friends high on the gray's menu. When it comes to close-in work, or when working an animal that appears reluctant or hesitant, I'll switch to low-volume squeaks, a simple task accomplished with a mouth-blown coaxer.
THE NOSE ALWAYS KNOWS
Foxes, like all canine predators, locate food and pinpoint danger primarily via their noses. Fool their sense of smell and you've bypassed their first line of defense. A scent elimination regime that includes body, clothing and equipment certainly isn't going to extremes. Without question, always be mindful of the wind and wind direction.
"No matter what direction a fox comes from," said veteran caller Tad Brown, "he's going to try to wind you. You hunt with the wind in your face, if possible, or quartering to your calling position.
"If you hunt with a partner," he continued, "position him downwind with good fields of fire. You have to expect that critter to (try to) get downwind."